4 Fantastic Fictional Females

photo by Justus Brazelton

Below you’ll find 4 characters—all from 19th century novels.

These particular characters are not exactly well-knownand not exactly heroines
but I picked them because they’re vivid, compelling,
morally complex women who clearly value their own self-worth.
And that’s refreshing to find in novels of any century!

The first is a main character written by a male author;
The next three are all lesser-known supporting characters—from three
very well-known female authors: Austen, Brontë, and Gaskell.

I’m hoping you’ll find these four characters as fascinating as I do!

Spoiler Warning

I tried not to give away too many details,
but if you haven’t read these 4 novelsand
if you like to approach books as a clean slate
be warned that there are spoilers ahead for:
Shirley, Far from the Madding Crowd,
Mansfield Park, and Wives and Daughters.

Bathsheba Everdene
from ‘Far from the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy

Bathsheba Everdene is a single woman who inherits an estate and—
to everyone’s surprise—decides to run it herself without the help of
an (inevitably male) overseer or bailiff.

Bathsheba has no family around.
And the only two people she looks to for help or advice are both her employees.

She does has a good friend in Liddy, who acts as Bathsheba’s personal assistant,
lady’s maid, secretary—and just about her only confidante.

Bathsheba is strong and honest and capable—yet she’s frequently
blown about by her emotions. One week she’s successfully holding her ground,
and the next week she’s caved in to the manipulations of one of her bothersome suitors.

I found Bathsheba Everdene to be a wonderfully complex, relatable,
and believably human character.

Promise me to keep my secret
And do not let them know that I have been
crying about him

Death’s head himself shan’t wring it from me, mistress
And I’ll always be your friend.
I think God likes us to be good friends, don’t you?

Indeed I do.

And, dear miss, you won’t harry me and storm at me, will you?
because you seem to swell so tall as a lion then,
and it frightens me! Do you know,
I fancy you would be a match for any man
when you are in one o’ your takings.

Never! do you?
I hope I am not a bold sort of maid — mannish?

O no, not mannish;

but so almighty womanish
I wish I had half your failing that way.
‘Tis a great protection to a poor maid in
these illegit’mate days!

– from Far from the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
chapter 10

*** You can read more about Bathsheba
and Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd
in my October 2021 post called… Threepence

Shirley Keeldar
from ‘Shirley’
Charlotte Brontë

Shirley Keeldar is a young, unmarried woman who, like Bathsheba,
runs her own estate single-handedly.

Unlike Bathsheba, Shirley has many friends to advise and help her—
and far fewer bothersome suitors to plague her!

What I admire about Shirley is her confidence and her sense of fun.

Also, her relationship with her friend Caroline is really wonderful to watch.
(Despite the title, it is Caroline who’s the novel’s main character.)

We will go—you and I alone, Caroline—
to that wood, early

some fine summer morning, and
spend a long day there.
We can take pencils and sketch-books, and
any interesting reading book we like;
and of course we shall take something to eat

– from Shirley
Charlotte Brontë
Chapter 12

The subject of gender comes up in interesting ways in this novel:

Shirley often refers to herself as male.
And it’s no coincidence that her name is Shirley because,
at that time, Shirley was exclusively a man’s name.
(It’d be as if a novel today featured a strong young woman named Bob.)

According to Charlotte Brontë’s friend & biographer Elizabeth Gaskell,
Shirley is how Charlotte imagined her sister Emily Brontë might have turned out—
if Emily had had the benefits of wealth and privilege.

Late in the novel, Shirley receives a marriage proposal.

We readers get to hear about it from the hopeful suitor himself—
Robert Moore—as Robert tells a friend all about
his offering his hand to Shirley Keeldar.

The proposal does not go well.
Robert himself calls it a ‘hideous blunder’.

Here’s a little bit of that scene…

(If you know and love Elizabeth Bennet’s reaction to Mr Darcy’s first proposal,
I really think you’re going to enjoy this…)

I certainly believed she loved me

I never felt as if nature meant her to be mybetter self.
[but] I should be rich with her and ruined without her
I would be practical, and not romantic.

I walked up to Fieldhead one night last August
I offered myself

She neither blushed, trembled, nor looked down
She started up, walked twice fast through the room

‘You have made a strange proposalYou spoke like a
brigand who demanded my purse rather than like a
lover who asked my heart’

She sat down in the window-seat and cried
Her eyes not only rained but lightened.
They flashed, open, large, haughty, upon me

‘I did respect you—I did admire—I did like you,’ she said…
‘And you—you want to make a speculation of me.’

‘I was persuaded you loved me, Miss Keeldar.’

‘Do you mean you thought I loved you as
we love those we wish to marry?’

It was my meaning, and I said so.

‘Let me say this:
Your sight is jaundiced; you have seen wrong.
Your mind is warped; you have judged wrong
I never loved you….
My heart is as pure of passion for you
as yours is barren of affection for me

She rose, she grew tall, she expanded and
refined almost to flame

‘You, once high in my esteem, are hurled down;
you, once intimate in my friendship, are cast out.

– from Shirley
Charlotte Brontë
Chapter 30

*** You can read more about Shirley
and other novels by the Brontë sisters in my post which…
I haven’t written yet! Please stay tuned!

Cynthia Kirkpatrick
from ‘Wives and Daughters’
Elizabeth Gaskell

Cynthia Kirkpatrick, unlike both Shirley and Bathsheba, is
definitely not a wealthy landowner.

We meet Cynthia right at the point where Cynthia meets Molly
her new step-sister (and the novel’s main character)—for the first time.

Especially when Cynthia was first introduced,
I was kinda waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I was waiting for Cynthia to turn out to be this spiteful,
vindictive, horrible character. I feel like
certain authors would have taken her in that direction

I like the dynamic between her and Molly

I spent the whole book willing Molly to be happy,
willing Cynthia to be free.

– Lesley Rickman

Both girls are teenagers,
but I’d say that’s almost the only thing the two have in common.

Despite their differences, Cynthia and Molly become very close very quickly.
And Cynthia is able to teach the more-sheltered Molly some things about the world—
and women’s choices within that world—which no one else in Molly’s life had ever even hinted at.

It’s during the scenes with her step-father that Cynthia really shows her backbone.
Cynthia loves and admires Dr Gibson.
And, as she tells Molly, Cynthia thinks he could be good for her.

I do believe your father might
make a good woman of me yet,
if he would only take the pains,
and was not quite, quite so severe.

– from Wives and Daughters
Elizabeth Gaskell
chapter 37

But Cynthia will not let even Dr Gibson dictate to her who and what she should be.
Here’s a particularly rough moment between the three of them:

“You have been a flirt and a jilt even to the degree of
dragging Molly’s name down into the same mire.”

Cynthia lifted her bowed-down head, and looked at him.

“You say that of me, Mr Gibson.
Not knowing what the circumstances are, you say that!”

“Papa,” said Molly, “if you knew all
you would not speak so to Cynthia

“I am ready to hear whatever she has to say,” said he.

But Cynthia said, “No!
You have prejudged me; you have spoken to me
as you had no right to speak.
I refuse to give you my confidence, or accept your help.”

– from Wives and Daughters
Elizabeth Gaskell
chapter 50

*** You can read more about Cynthia
and Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters
in my September 2019 post called…Escape to Italy

Mary Crawford
from ‘Mansfield Park
Jane Austen

If Cynthia is set up as a villain—and then becomes an ally;
Mary Crawford is set up to a be an ally, and then becomes a villain.

This is Austen’s least-loved and I’d say least-understood novel.
Mary Crawford may be the villain—yet, confusingly, she seems
to have all the hallmarks of a heroine:
She’s smart, funny, athletic, popular, and often surprisingly kind.

I once wrote a radio play setting Mary Crawford as a time traveler,
who comes from the 23rd century to land in Jane Austen’s 19th century novel.
Because she feels so modern!

Everything Mary Crawford is faulted for in her time would be lauded—
or at least thought to be normal—in our time.
For example…

She’s thought ‘disgusting’ for disparaging the unfairness of primogeniture laws.

She’s considered ‘astonishing’ and ‘indecorous’ for criticizing an uncle who cruelly mistreats his wife.

She’s thoroughly vexatious and embarrassing when she points out hypocrisy in the Church.

And she’s called ‘ignorant’ ‘unfeminine’ and ‘corrupted’ for refusing to be
shocked when a family member has an extramarital affair.

Oh, and she makes raunchy jokes!

(I’m not sure that Mary Crawford isn’t my favorite of all Jane Austen’s characters.)

The scene we were rehearsing was so very remarkable!
No time can ever wear out the impression
I have of his looks and voice

It was curious, very curious, that we should have
such a scene to play!
Such exquisite happiness
His sturdy spirit to bend as it did! Oh! it was
sweet beyond expression.

But alas! that very evening
destroyed it all.
That very evening
brought your
most unwelcome uncle.
Poor Sir Thomas, who was glad to see you?

Yet Fanny, do not imagine I would
now speak disrespectfully of Sir Thomas,
though I certainly did hate him for many a week.

No, I do him justice now.

He is just what the head of such a family should be.
Nay, in sober sadness, I believe I now love you all

You have all so much more heart among you

You all give me a feeling of being able
to trust and confide in you

– from Mansfield Park
Jane Austen
Volume 3, Chapter 5

*** You can read more about
Jane Austen and her novels
in my December 2019 post called Chawton

If you’ve found any of these characters intriguing, perhaps you’ll give the novels a try—
to read or re-read!

And if you’re new to reading classics (or just a bit rusty),
here are a few pointers I’ve found along the way,
which may help ease you in & get you going…
How To and How Not To Read Classics.

Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

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